Union needed for better jobs, better pay

Improvements in graduate employee pay and quality of life will benefit everyone at the University.

On Monday through April 15, University graduate employees will have the historic opportunity to cast their vote for a union, exercising an opportunity to add to the decision-making process that decides pay, health benefits, departmental budgets and future career opportunities for all teaching and research assistants. Graduate employees are an immensely diverse group, working at three different campuses, in more than 100 different departments, coming from dozens of home countries and performing work from grading papers to long-term research projects for private corporations.

Yet key issues affect the lives of all graduate employees. All graduate employees are eligible for the same health insurance that is managed by the administration. All graduate employees’ pay rates result from budget priorities set by the administration. All graduate employees pay fees, either through their department’s “fringe” budget or directly from their pocketbooks, and these fee rates are set by the administration. All graduate employees are impacted by vacation, sick pay and workload policies set by the administration. Through the establishment of Graduate Teaching and Research Assistants Coalition United Electrical Local 1105, graduate employees are coming together to add their input to these decisions, looking to improve their jobs and the University.

The administration recently changed its tune about the rights of graduate employees to make an informed decision about unionization. After publicly acknowledging they would “keep employees informed” about the union election process, the administration has opted to vocally advocate against a union, spamming graduate employee mailboxes with multiple and often contradictory daily e-mails, and attempting to delay the right to vote until after finals, when many employees will have already left the region or country.

Despite administration attempts to create a climate of uncertainty about the union, the record of graduate employee unions at other major research universities gives our entire student population a wealth of reasons to be hopeful. In the face of continuing budget cuts, graduate employees at the University of Iowa won a new contract with pay raises and health-care improvements Feb. 1. All employees received a raise, added on a percentile basis to the current rate of pay for each employee. Pay increases will total nearly 15 percent over the life of the two-year contract. The union blocked any changes to the health-care plan, despite ongoing administration attempts to reduce services and increase costs for employees. All these benefits will apply to a growing number of employees, as workload protections in the union contract have encouraged the University of Iowa to hire more than 200 new graduate employees since employees unionized in 1996. These improvements were won through well researched, professionally managed negotiations, and occurred in a state where public employees have no right to strike.

Improvements in graduate employee pay and quality of life will benefit everyone at the University of Minnesota. Some of the most prestigious public research institutions in the United States, such as the University of Michigan and University of California, have unionized graduate employees who have won gains in pay and working conditions. As a result, those universities are able to offer the most competitive recruitment funding offers. The University of Minnesota is at a competitive disadvantage, having the lowest average graduate employee pay in the Big Ten. A union will bring a fresh set of expertise to address this problem. A more stable, financially secure work force will improve our ability to offer the best teaching and research in the world. The union election that begins Monday will present an exciting new opportunity for the entire University community.

Ryan Murphy is a graduate student and GradTRAC organizer. Please send comments to [email protected]